Manly are into their fourth grand final in seven years as South Sydney stumbled at the penultimate hurdle for the second straight year with a heartbreaking 30-20 NRL preliminary final loss to the Sea Eagles at ANZ Stadium.
Seeking to end a 42-year wait to reach the decider, the Rabbitohs stumbled when the grand final berth seemed theirs for the taking – a 14-0 lead at better than a point a minute the perfect start.
But somehow it slipped through their fingers to a Manly side building one of the NRL’s great dynasties.
They piled on 30 straight points to silence the Souths faithful who made up the majority of the 44,546 crowd.
It capped a devastating day for Rabbitohs coach Michael Maguire, whose mother passed away earlier in the day after a battle with illness.
Glenn Stewart could be an unlikely grand final starter even if the Sea Eagles progress, with a high tackle on Sam Burgess landing him on report in the fourth minute.
His missed tackle on the tryline gifted John Sutton one of the easiest tries of his long career, before the Sea Eagles back-rower coughed up possession near halfway without a defender within touching distance.
The Bunnies took full toll with Nathan Merritt scoring to make it 14-0 after 12 minutes – the winger equalling Benny Wearing’s club record 144 tries as Adam Reynolds became just the second Rabbitoh after Eric Simms to kick 100 goals in a season.
It seemed a case of how many for Souths as the toll of two tough finals matches appeared to have finally caught up with Manly, before Glenn Stewart began his redemption story with a clever grubber to set up brother Brett as the Sea Eagles scored against the run of play.
Momentum swung wildly as Manly peppered the Bunnies line – but South Sydney held firm including one amazing set containing four goal-line try-savers – two by Greg Inglis who was huge in defence yet quiet in attack.
Halftime had seemingly stymied Manly’s charge, but the break only served to recharge the batteries with Brett Stewart’s brilliant sleight of hand sending Matt Ballin over down the blindside, the Sea Eagles trailing by just two five minutes after the restart.
Sam Burgess could have stopped the rot only to drop the ball over the tryline, Jamie Lyon making no such mistake as he became the fourth Sea Eagle to notch 1000 points for the club to give his side a lead seemingly unimaginable 20 minutes earlier.
David Williams produced a remarkable piece of acrobatic genius to touch down in the corner just after the hour mark – Tom Symonds kick-starting the party with eight minutes to go when he regathered a charge down on Adam Reynolds to score in front of an emptying ‘Burrow’ section of the crowd.
Manly coach Geoff Toovey saw the key to the win as his side’s resilience after the early onslaught.
“Fantastic effort, they should be very proud of themselves, we just hung in there after such a terrible start,” Toovey said.
“Us hanging in there gave us the opportunity to come away with the points.”
On the Stewart high tackle, Toovey said, when asked if he would be disappointed if that ruled him out of a grand final: “It’s not up to me but from what I saw there’s been 100s of them during the year and no one has seen to have copped anything.
“I’d be surprised.”
Toovey confirmed prop Richie Fa’aoso had been taken to hospital for scans on a neck injury sustained in the first half.
It was a sombre Maguire and John Sutton at the post-match press conference, the Souths coach hoping his men could build from the defeat.
“We’ll learn lessons, it’s a tough change room in there at the moment, a lot of disappointed players,” Maguire said.
“We’ve got to get stronger from this as a team and a club and we have to go into the next chapter.”
Added Sutton: “To go out like that, just devastated.
“I couldn’t believe it – just that second half wasn’t the way we play.”
SNAPSHOT OF THE NRL FIRST PRELIMINARY FINAL
Result: Manly 30 bt South Sydney 20 at ANZ Stadium.
Key moment: With the match still in the balance and Manly leading 18-14 just after the hour mark, Sea Eagles winger David Williams performed a more than passable version of a gymnast to score a remarkable and decisive try.
Key quote: “We knew we had it in us, we dug deep,” Manly coach Geoff Toovey after his team rallied from an early 14-0 deficit.
Injuries: Manly: Richie Fa’aoso (shoulder/neck), Souths: Bryson Goodwin (hand).
What’s next: A grand final appointment for Manly against the winner of Saturday’s preliminary final between Sydney Roosters and Newcastle. An off-season of soul-searching for South Sydney as they enter a 43rd year of their premiership drought after successive preliminary final losses.
Judiciary watch: Glenn Stewart (Manly) was placed on report for a high shot on Sam Burgess.